As the federal government shutdown grinds into the new year, a Springdale-based nonprofit group is opening its checkbook to ensure vital visitor services are available at Utah’s busiest park for the remainder of the holiday travel season.
Gov. Gary Herbert had already directed checks totaling $80,000 from state funds to the federal government to pays for services at Zion, Arches and Bryce Canyon national parks through Dec. 31.
The Zion Forever Project will pick up the slack for Zion through Jan. 5 as park visitation is expected to climb above 8,000 a day. Arches and Bryce Canyon — like other national parks and monuments in Utah — will be open but without any services (such as restrooms and visitor centers).
With Zion getting money from the state through Monday, and, starting Tuesday, about $2,000 a day from the nonprofit, it will be able to keep the visitor center and some restrooms open and maintained.
“We literally wired the funds to the federal treasury,” said Zion Forever’s executive director, Lyman Hafen.
“We are here to provide a margin of excellence for the park, raise money and ensure those funds are used for the highest priorities,” Hafen said. “At this moment, the highest priority is there needs to be a degree of visitor services and custodial service that would not happen without the state. We are willing to take that on until Jan. 5.”
The Zion Forever Project is the park’s private partner. It raises money for programs and projects that would not ordinarily be covered by National Park Service budgets.
“We hope this [shutdown] comes to an end because this is no way to run a national park,” Hafen added. “If the gates are open and services are almost nil, that’s a huge challenge. The park is full of people, and they are everywhere.”
Since Dec. 22, up to 800,000 federal employees are on furlough or working without pay in the wake of a budget impasse between President Donald Trump and Congress over funding for a wall Trump wants built along the Mexico border. Fewer than 4,000 of the National Park Service’s 20,000-plus employees are on the job, and the agency has told states not to expect reimbursement for funds they are dropping to keep park sites staffed during the shutdown.
Public information officers for the national parks in Utah said they were barred from speaking with the media during the shutdown and directed inquiries to National Park Service headquarters. A message left with agency spokesman Jeff Olson was not returned Friday.
As part of the Department of Interior’s shutdown contingency plans, all national parks and monuments would remain open to visitors, but it wouldn’t provide visitor services, like restrooms, trash collection, and road and facility maintenance. Capitol Reef and Canyonlands national parks, which have low visitor turnout in the winter, remained open under those conditions. The park services’ social media accounts and websites are not monitored or regularly updated and may not reflect current conditions at any of the 400 national parks, monuments and other sites overseen by the park service.
However, the usual entrance fees will not be charged. At Utah parks, new permits for backcountry destinations are not being issued, but commercial guides and outfitters could be able to conduct trips as usual. All park programs have been canceled.
State funds for visitor services at Arches and Bryce Canyon run out on Monday and will not be reauthorized if the shutdown pushes into the new year, according to Vicki Varela, managing director of the Utah Office of Tourism, Film and Global Branding. Visitation at those parks is expected to drop off next week, while Zion’s will remain strong.
Varela said she was uncertain whether the state would pick up the tab for Zion’s staffing beyond Jan. 5, but there appears to be a wide consensus that it would be money well spent.
“We are happy to do our part to close the gap, but these parks should be fully serviced, both to protect the visitor experience and to protect these spectacular natural resources,” Varela said. “There is unified support [among Utah’s political leadership] for the state to step in any way that is appropriate. The state is committed to doing the right thing.”
After Monday, trails and roads will remain open at the three parks subsidized by the state, although the Zion shuttle service does end — as scheduled before the shutdown. Other NPS-run destinations to remain open but not staffed include Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Canyonlands and Capitol Reef national parks and Dinosaur National Monument.
Also remaining open during the shutdown are destinations overseen by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management, such Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments and Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, but visitors can’t expect much in the way of services.
With Zion teeming with visitors, there is a concern with hiker safety on popular trails in precipitous terrain such as Angels Landing and Observation Point. Emergency services will be available to keep roads open and for rescues if needed, but rangers may not be fully patrolling the park.
“Even with our funding," Hafen said, “it is just a fraction of what it would be on a normal December day.”
The Zion Forever Project has raised thousands of dollars for rehabilitating historic park structures, researching obscure resources like springs, wildflowers, bats and aquatic invertebrates, and relocating bighorn sheep. Offsetting the government shutdown would divert resources that could go toward enhancing the park.
“We have provisional funds to do that. It is certainly not the way we want to use these funds because there are so many high priorities in the park,” Hafen said. “We are on track to fund everything we are committed to.”